Bill Viola Tuesday April 25, 2006

Video artist Bill Viola uses an interesting fusion between philosophy, old-school art and modern technology. Some of his work uses extreme slow motion presented on huge plasma panels, collapsing the boundaries between photography and film. I attended two exhibitions in London about three years ago, and had this to say:

1) Tate Modern

There’s a steady stream of Viola’s work in London galleries. A few years ago I saw his ageing triptych at the Tate – the one showing a baby on the left, a dying man on the right, and someone else in the middle. Five Angels For The New Millennium is an installation comprising 5 large projection screens in a darkened room. I read the introductory text about his interest in metaphysical and spiritual themes, and the fact that he nearly drowned when younger – also a theme in his work.

Five Angels For The New Millennium consists of 5 different versions of the same concept: a man emerging from primeval waters, in reality reverse-frame entries with hyper slow motion waters. Viola wants you to have an immersive experience and the sound is particularly powerful, probably the first impression you have if your room entry coincides with one of the 5 climaxes, the emerging bodies accompanied with a resounding crash – a digitally edited version of the watery impact when you jump or dive into water. These climaxes occur apparently at random after a sonic and visual build-up: low level background sounds mostly but not entirely with a bass frequency, and undulating, rippling or sparkling waters. Each time a climax is about to occur you can hear it above the other displays and the audience orients itself accordingly.

There’s no doubt a darkened room, large digital projections and an immersive soundscape has considerable impact, more than a mere sculpture or photo. But more importantly, Viola is employing powerful thematic imagery which resonates with religious systems. Five Angels For The New Millennium represents a spontaneous emergence from the element water – frequently employed in religious imagery at a metaphysical level (Hinduism) or a ritual level (Christianity). This is Viola’s ‘message’, and his real talent is how he works with these images and themes, abstracts and transforms them, so they float free from all conceptual and institutional associations. At best, Viola’s work can resonate with the unconscious, through intermediary symbolism which we inevitably absorb from our cultural conditioning. One person next to me said “Bloody hell. I enjoyed that!” His companion replied “It was great”. I suspect neither of them could have articulated or conceptualised it in spiritual terms, but it is in the nature of this work that it has impact, regardless of prior experience or knowledge. In that respect, Viola is an intermediary between ordinary urban experience – what galleries more usually consist of, however culturally sophisticated it may be – and more sacred concerns. These stills show the figure raising and lowering in the waters:

2) National Gallery

On the Late Review TV show, a panellists compared Viola’s art work The Passions to a presentation for Gap clothing, saying the buttoned-down collars “didn’t work” for him. All of them were mildly disparaging, less than enthusiastic. In the Sunday Times, critic Waldemar Januszczak insisted on comparing it to the work of the old masters, saying “We’d come to watch Botticelli, not the telly”. The Passions is, admittedly, visually based on historically famous paintings. But this is more incidental than Januszczak suggests, it is not a case of old masters vs. modern video, and the Gap criticism was ridiculous. I find it interesting that critics praise and eulogise the silliness presented annually at the Turner Prize, bought by Charles Saatchi and presented in London galleries – but cannot understand or respond favourably to the work of Bill Viola. The latter is immeasurably more mature than trendy YBA nonsense, more profound, compelling and meaningful. Viola believes that art can be a transformative experience, and his work is thus elevated into an entirely different league from the unmade beds, dead animals, crumpled paper etc of supposed artistic value. This is a relevant comparison because Viola and the YBAs are equally contemporary, exhibited at A List galleries around the world, and with international reputations. Finding an unmade bed or an on/off light switch an interesting experience compared to Viola’s work is a little odd – but not when you consider the following. Transformative art, based on metaphysical concepts, has always been of marginal interest. You either ‘get it’, or you don’t, and most people don’t. Watching the Late Review panel I felt they were half asleep, hypnotised by cultural conditioning and oh-so sophisticated learning.

There is an initial difficulty in video art whereby we have to accept it as different from cinema, video or, indeed, the “telly”. But if all you do is react against Viola in terms of prior familiarity with the electronic screen, then you really have to look a little deeper. Why is it apparently easy to do this when it concerns an unmade bed (for fuck sake), but difficult when it concerns themes of life, death and transformation? It says something about the kind of society in which we live, and the values on which it is based.

One of the distinguishing themes of Viola’s work is his interest in time, and his use of hyper slow motion to create something that is neither film nor photography. Film editing (he says) is an unconscious language, a way of structuring time and space, which is largely unnoticed. Shot reverse-shot enables us to make sense of a conversation between two people, i.e. establish a narrative context. Meditation (something Viola has experienced) alters your perceptual experience of time, and in this respect Viola’s work is meditative – not a unique quality in the world of art, but unique in the way he does it. The first exhibit at The Passions is a huge screen showing a meeting between three women, based on Carrucci’s The Visitation. As with his Five Angels For The New Millennium, it is 1) hyper slow motion, 2) accompanied by a necessary soundscape and 3) has a compelling climax. The third woman appears about halfway through the cycle, greets the others, and this is depicted with a sonic roar and slow motion emotion. It’s an arresting and beautiful moment, highlighting the overall theme for the exhibition.

In the next adjoining room the National Gallery has placed some of the art work that has influenced Viola concerning the ideas of life, death, and an existential mourning based on human separation. We are all ultimately alone, for most of the time we do not think about it or are even aware of it, but it becomes painfully obvious at moments of grief and mourning. The loved person dies (when Viola lost his parents) which is itself traumatic, and you additionally realise that eventually the same fate will befall you. Viola interprets these concerns in terms of Christian narrative as with the Christ figure in Bosch’s Christ Mocked who, he says, looks out of the picture thus beyond time and space, and directly into your heart. As Buddha said: to be born is to suffer, because everything is impermanent. Video is arguably well suited for this kind of theme because it is itself transitory. When the gallery is empty at 11 pm, we know the paintings are still there hanging on the walls. The videos, however, have been switched off and are no longer visible. Video relies on memory, not only at the level of moving optical impression, but beyond that to the very epistemology of the medium. The old painters tried to capture and thus immortalise themes and imagery from mythology, Christianity etc and thus make time stand still. Which can’t be done. When photography was invented the ambivalent nature of reproduction and representation became integral to the meaning of the snapshot: a frozen moment of time which no longer exists, thus paradoxical. Film theorist Gilles Deleuze defined what he called the moving image and the time image in movies (in his books Cinema 1 and Cinema 2), arguing that film is itself a philosophy and historically, its artistic power was not immediately realised. Although it is sometimes difficult (and not necessarily rewarding) to understand what Deleuze means, I suggest that Viola’s work sometimes fits the category of the time image.

Viola says he is not interested in merely re-interpreting existing work, and he briefly alludes to this during the 15 minute documentary which is part of the National Gallery show. With one painting, he says, he drew some sketches of it and then put them away; you have to allow unconscious process to reformulate the ideas and the imagery. His videos are (sometimes) clearly based on old masters paintings, but his work is more than simple remediation. The imagery is un-tethered from the religious systems from which it derives, and thus has an abstract power which bypasses critical perception. As I watched other people I could see the tremendous impact the videos had, and could also see (and sometimes hear) that the audience had no or very little conceptual framework in which to locate it. I watched someone survey the books Viola says have influenced him, in the retail area, and they were clearly very novel for her. I had bought, read or at least heard of almost all the titles concerning Zen, Christian mysticism etc. But this is the important and remarkable point: my appreciation of The Passions was not therefore superior to hers or that of any other person; it has an archetypal impact which reaches into the unconscious, regardless of what learning you have or don’t have. This is what Viola means when he says he wants his art to ‘transform’ and it is what makes it profoundly meaningful. I can read a Sufi story and it will make sense because I am used to that kind of literature; for most people it won’t have that effect for the simple reason that they have not been exposed to it in a culture which is based on material values. Viola’s work is thus an important cultural project: it has a purpose, and it achieves this by a non-didactic i.e. ‘artistic’ method. Not many people read Sufi stories or Buddhist sutras, but thousands of people look at Bill Viola’s videos and sense the meaning therein, even if they cannot articulate or conceptualise what it is.

Theorist Paul Virilio argued that technology magnifies our perception. Thus, the lens can reach out into space or down into microscopic depths and show us things we cannot normally see. For Viola (and myself), the photographic and video lens implies philosophical process; as with the Deleuze belief in film philosophy, video is a philosophical form. Or rather it can be, since clearly for much of the time it isn’t. Many of the exhibits magnify passion, making it available for meditative or critical reflection, framed within a First Noble Truth ontology; Viola has stated many times how much the death of his parents affected him. Some of the exhibits at The Passions are a simple representation of passion i.e. feeling, depicting actors in hyper slow motion grief, joy, anger etc. One of the Late Review panellists referred to the factor of body language, and without sound – as in many of the works – this is clearly how ‘meaning’ is achieved. Viola creates a perceptual realm whereby time is immeasurably slowed, so you can observe in great detail the facial mannerisms that express and reveal different emotions: the photographic aesthetic. I find these works less interesting than the more metaphysical videos; you are more aware that ultimately, you are watching actors perform in front of a camera. However they do encourage you to slow down i.e. adopt a more observant form of perception capable of noticing otherwise unrecognised detail. I found it remarkable that in the heart of London, in an interior section of the National Gallery, a large crowd of people were walking around an art exhibition in almost total silence. There were no signs saying Please Be Quiet, no rules requiring you to whisper, if at all, only when necessary. And yet that’s what happened, as a testimony to Viola’s work. I noticed my breathing slowed, something I’m familiar with from practices like meditation and Tai Chi. It’s a significant experience, which I’m sure was shared by my quiet fellow audience.

On a little placard, Viola had written that he is interested in what he calls the interior eye, whereby you see yourself in multifarious narrative situations. In that respect, for the viewer of his work you find yourself seeing yourself, i.e. aspects of the human condition in visual/video form, amenable to observation. As I watched the exhibit called Observance, my mind was initially fairly blank; I had no preconceptions and merely watched the small procession of observers. After several minutes I suddenly realised what was happening, and it was an upsetting shock that nearly made me cry. If I’d been alone, I probably would have done so. There it was, unfolding in front of my eyes on a plasma screen – the first Noble Truth that to be born is to suffer, the trauma when I lost my father and the ensuing processional rituals, and the fact of my own certain death: those people were looking at me with the inevitable mixture of grief, shock, horror, powerlessness and incredulity. Only once before have I ever had that kind of art experience, with a student ‘installation’ (in reality just a theatrical set) consisting of a dark-draped enclosure with some sombre flowers: it was a mourning room that suddenly triggered years-old grief. It was undeniably affecting, but I was not grateful for the experience because it lacked any redeeming or philosophical context, and sought merely to depict. Observance was equally affecting, but mediated in a profoundly philosophical context. I looked around and noticed a mid-50s woman undergoing, I think, a similar experience to myself. I reflected that it would not resonate so much with younger people who have not yet been bereaved, and noticed there were indeed some younger folk smiling and enjoying themselves, clearly unaware of the traumas of grief. Bill Viola: art for grown ups.

Unlike the Five Angels For The New Millennium exhibit, only some of The Passions is housed in darkened rooms. It’s a significant factor, its simplicity creating both ‘atmosphere’ and womb-like retreat from the busy world. The centre piece – the largest exhibit – is the video Viola calls The Crossing, which depicts the simple action of a man running up towards the camera and being immersed in water (The Crossing 1) and then flame (The Crossing 2: the reverse side of the first screen, i.e. two different projections). Again it is hyper-slow motion, giving you an extraordinarily beautiful display of falling water.

This is not innovative or unique – it’s been done before in cinematography and photographic stills – but the piece of work as a whole is unique, according to my experience at least. I know from meditation that there’s a sense in which you ‘disappear’, i.e. dissolve into a bigger, greater, more radiant and transcendent ‘identity’. In one respect this is ‘death’; in another respect the most beautiful and transformative possibility within life. Small moments – they don’t necessarily occupy large amounts of clock time – where you transcend the pains of existence because you, there, cannot die; large moments, which are not moments at all because you rest, like a recumbent Buddha, beyond temporal fluctuation. Not experiences then, because experience comes and goes and therefore has limits, but meaning-of-life realisations. During one meditation period my body slowed so profoundly I was barely breathing; I realised the yogic burial alive practices are the wrong way round: they train the organism to withstand near suffocation as a means of bodily mastery whereas with spiritual transcendence such things happen as automatic side effects, and are not important. As I sat watching the watery Crossing in the darkened room tears filled my eyes because I have never seen such an accurate and beautiful evocation of ‘dissolving’ in meditation. The man runs up, he is covered first with a few drops and then a downpour of water, and he disappears.

There are further factors relevant to Viola’s work but the former are, for me, ultimately the most important. He frequently uses multiple displays, based on the triptych or multi-panel aesthetic. In the documentary film at the exhibiton he compares a multi-scene painting to a storyboard; in the centre of the latter there is one figure who represents timeless i.e. transcendent apprehension; the surrounding scenes are the narrative episodes of life. A two, three, four or five screen presentation has a different psychological effect to one screen, probably triggering a different and more holistic kind of brain-hemisphere response. If you have a divided narrative attention you have to assemble it yourself into a greater whole, instilling a panoramic or metaphysical contemplation of life. Not all of the exhibits at The Passions are large scale and dramatic; I enjoyed Catherine’s Room which consists of 5 quite small screens showing the same person engaging in different activities in a monk-like room. It operates at different levels: different stages of the same life, the passing of the seasons, and the multiple interests and activities which fill one person’s life. In India, they believe life has 4 different stages: innocence, youth and learning, the householder (married), and then spiritual enquiry. In art, Indian theory categorises work into 8 moods or rasas, which are 8 in number: Shringara (the erotic), hasya (the comic), Karuna (the pathetic), Raudra (the furious), Vira (the heroic), Bhayanaka (the terrible), Adbhuta (the marvelous) and Shanta (the quiescent). Catherine depicts different moods in 5 different narratives, in the same room.

Although Viola’s work is contemplative, it is simulatanously ‘active’ because of the nature of video. A painting is passive, because it has no movement. I was tired after my trip to London and when I pulled my new Viola books out of my bag, I was disinclined to open them. I’d had enough, and needed to rest. I wouldn’t feel the same way about a book of paintings, or looking at a painting: they require nothing from me, i.e. I can invest them with psychological energy or not, according to my interest and mood. It’s more difficult to ‘switch off’ a video when it’s in front of your eyes; it has a different aesthetic to painting, even when the video is painterly.

Video is a transcendent artistic form, in the sense that it’s completely fluid. Especially with the digital version, you have complete freedom to use sound, imagery, film, photography or fine art references – anything you wish to incorporate. After some experience with digital culture I became irritated with computer based art which is justified with reference to simulation theory, Baudrillard especially, and ideas about transcending the corporeal limitations of gender and identity. I’m relieved that in the realm of digital culture, Viola’s work provides me with reference points I can use to refute the silliness, and highlight the insight. In the 15 minute documentary, Viola refers to Bout’s Annunciation, and how it is not a literal representation of an angel telling Mary that she is pregnant with Jesus; it represents the pre-verbal, pre-cognitive perception whereby a woman knows she is pregnant before it has been scientifically or biologically ascertained. There are non-intellectual forms of perception, non-material levels of human experience. At its best, Viola’s work operates at that pre-conscious level.

Artists undertake a personal journey which has been romanticised, glamorised and in recent years, marketed in self-developmental manuals like The Artists’ Way. I don’t believe that someone who produces an empty bed, a light switch or dead shark is embarked on a journey I can respect. They are not investigating themselves or life in any meaningful way that I recognise, and for that reason I find their work vacuous nonsense. Viola is in a different league, and is someone I can respect.